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Power to the People

June 19, 2007

In what could be considered a case of premature delivery, Oakland Opera Theater attempted a first last week. Although the diminutive company has garnered an enviable reputation for staging intriguing multimedia productions of original or rarely performed contemporary works in the too-funky-for-comfort Oakland Metro Opera House, it has never before, to my knowledge, produced a short evening consisting entirely of snippets from works in progress.
Actually, works in gestation is more like it. Neither composer Mary Watkins (Dark River) nor the creative team of Clark Suprynowicz and Lynne Morrow (The Panthers) had yet engaged a librettist, as the sizable number of audience members who stayed for the postperformance discussion learned. Instead, in order to have something ready in time for the workshop, they had stitched together a few scenes using improvised dialogue of their own design. (Suprynowicz termed what he aired a "stunt libretto.") It is fair to surmise that, had not Oakland Opera Theater Director Tom Dean approached both composers and asked them to participate in the so-called workshop, neither would have attempted a semistaged version of their work at such an early point.

Whether such a premature airing adequately serves either composers or audience is open to question. Regardless, faced with music that composers who do not consider themselves librettists set to their own words “under the gun,” a formal review is not only premature but also inappropriate. What I offer instead is background information on what could turn out to be important works, and hints as to what we may expect in the future.
Moments in Time
The two operas focused on several decades of the civil rights era, as part of a workshop billed as "Great Moments in American History Set to Music." The evening consisted of three scenes from Watkins' Dark River and seven scenes from Suprynowicz and Morrow's The Panthers. Given that there were often huge historical gaps between each scene, and that one premature opera followed the other without pause, many people in the audience were understandably confused as to what was going on.

The Panthers was especially unbalanced in this regard, focusing more on the denouement than the glory years of good. Those in the packed house who stayed for the discussion (which included a long, run-on soliloquy from Bobby Seale) gained invaluable insight into the far more balanced portrayal that the co-collaborators eventually hope to stage.

The work from Watkins, a composer, pianist, arranger, and record producer, will center around 10 years in the life of the indefatigable civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer. A sharecropper with a sixth-grade education, Hamer survived severe beatings during her early years as a freedom fighter to become the spokeswoman for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her speeches and appearances on national TV were pivotal to raising America’s awareness of the racist abuse of its former slaves. Watkins attributes Hamer’s strong impact to the fact that she always spoke her truth, often with a righteous anger that came from the heart.

Composer Suprynowicz, also a jazz musician who has performed and recorded with John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Art Lande, Max Roach, and Tom Waits, has joined forces with Lynne Morrow, music director of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble and Oakland Symphony Chorus, to create an opera about the history of the Black Panther Party. Scheduled for a 2009 Oakland East Bay Symphony premiere at the Paramount Theater, the opera-to-be will address the Panthers’ many positive contributions to life in Oakland and other cities through its free breakfast for children program and other service activities, and its 10 Point Program of demands coauthored by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. It will also portray the frameups and murders committed by J. Edgar Hoover and his boys in the FBI, as well as the small minority of Panthers who moved beyond nonviolence.

Panthers at a "Free Huey" rally in Oakland, 1968

Photo by Stephen Shames

Watkins’ idiom, which fuses jazz instruments and elements with a highly sophisticated mastery of distinctly modern-sounding harmonies, is unquestionably classical in the way it provokes thought and expresses multiple states of emotion. (Perhaps I’m being chauvinistic here, since the finest jazz can do the same.) She also demands a lot of her singers, forcing the outrageously handsome Antoine Garth to sing in too high a tessitura for comfort. When he switched from playing a sharecropper in Dark River to Huey Newton in The Panthers, the latter’s more hospitable range allowed his fine voice to shine.

Suprynowicz seemed to rely heavily on established idioms and conventions, often producing one-dimensional music that sounded like something I’d heard on pop radio stations in my youth. Jennifer Palmer Boesing, the only Caucasian onstage, sang well as the Sheriff’s wife, while Angela Baham’s indistinct diction made a fine case for supertitles. Kudos to Wendell Brooks (Bobby), the funky style of the fine-voiced Cynthia Lau, and actors Jo V. Parks, Joe Blasi, Darryl Harper, and Corey Jackson.

Ultimately, I cannot pretend objectivity. I spent the summer of 1965 as a civil rights worker, registering people to vote in rural North Carolina. I got teargassed while resisting the police incursion onto the Yale campus during the trial of Bobby Seale, and went into shock at the brutal murder of Fred Hampton and other Panthers. For years after, the impact of the racism and inequality I experienced was so great that, every time I heard someone sing We Shall Overcome, I broke into tears. I eagerly await the official premieres of these important operas.


Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.